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Juliet Zaccaro stared down at the little plastic wand she was clutching between shaky, white-knuckled fingers.
It was one of those kits that promised 100 percent accuracy. No doubts. No second-guessing. And that was definitely a giant blue plus sign, glaring back at her like a flashing Broadway marquee.
She was pregnant.
Her stomach tightened; her lungs following suit. Knees growing weak, she took a single stumbling step sideways and sank onto the closed toilet lid in a cloud of gauzy white crepe and tulle.
A laugh verging on hysterical tickled its way up her throat, but she tamped it down. Pressed her lips together to keep it from spilling out, because she knew if she didn't, she might never stop.
It was her wedding day. Here she was in the cramped bathroom off the small-but-serviceable room at the rear of the church where she'd been getting ready, and she was very unexpectedly, very this-is-not-good-news pregnant.
She should have taken the test days ago rather than waiting until her hair and makeup were done and she was trussed up in her one-of-a-kind fairy-princess gown designed and hand sewn by her sister Lily. Hadn't she suspected for more than a week now that the dizziness, the headaches, the upset stomachs were more than simply prewedding jitters? But she'd been so afraid she was right, so afraid she might actually be pregnant that she couldn't bear to find out for sure.
And then she'd looked at herself in the mirror, seen herself as a bride about to walk down the aisle and realized she wasn't blushing, she was flushed. She wasn't glowing with happiness; she was radiating dread. And that was just at the prospect of saying "I do."
When she stopped to consider the fact that she might indeed be pregnant, all of her doubts, all of her fears, all of her second thoughts just grew louder and louder until they were a nearly deafening cacophony inside her head. That was when she knew she couldn't wait any longer to take the test and find out for sure.
Now she knew but she had no idea what to do about it. She couldn't very well walk down the aisle and start a new life with a man who most likely wasn'tmost likely? Who was she kidding?definitely wasn't the father of her child.
Dear God, her child. A baby. She was really and truly pregnant. Which meant it wasn't just about her anymore. She wasn't going to be the only one affected by whatever decisions she made from this moment forward. She had to start thinking like a mother, putting her child's safety and happiness ahead of her own.
A tap on the bathroom door startled her out of her deeply spiraling dark thoughts. She lifted her head as her sister's muffled voice came from the other side.
"Juliet. We're ready for you, sweetie," Lily said. "It's time to become Mrs. Paul Harris."
Her words were happy, encouraging, meant to uplift. Instead, they made Juliet's stomach drop.
She didn't know if she could become Mrs. Paul Harris. Or even if she should.
Taking a deep, shuddering breath, she called out, "I'll be right there. Just one more minute."
"All right. We'll be waiting in the vestibule."
Juliet waited until her sister's faint footsteps trailed off and the outer door closed. Then she pushed herself to her feet with the help of the porcelain vanity and glanced at her reflection in the mirror above the sink.
Not bad, as long as everyone waiting in the pews out front was expecting a Corpse Bride. Every ounce of color had leeched out of her skin, making the eye shadow, rouge and lipstick her sister Zoe had so carefully applied look like that of a practiced geisha.
Brushing a finger beneath each of her eyes, she wiped away any lingering trace of unshed tears and made sure her eyeliner and mascara were still intact. Then she fluffed out the diaphanous folds of her gown and dropped the plastic test stick into the small wicker wastebasket beside the sink. A second later, she leaned down and shook the basket so the wand fell to the very bottom. She certainly didn't want someone accidentally finding a positive pregnancy test in the bridal staging area and taking the time to put two and two together.
As ready as she was ever going to be, she left the bathroom and crossed the main room, slowly turning the knob and opening the outer door only a crack. The hallway was empty, thank goodness. Another moment's reprieve.
Opening the door the rest of the way, she stepped out. The muted whispers of her sisters and father reached her from where they were waiting only a few yards away.
Turn left and she would be at the start of the aisle, stepping her way into a new life to the strains of "The Wedding March."
Turn right toward one of the church's side doors and she could escape. It would be a new life of sorts, too, but one about which she was much less certain.
Her chest rose and fell with her increasingly shallow breaths. Her heart began to race like a greyhound after a rabbit.
Left or right? Go through with the wedding and her promise to Paul, or throw it all away and dive headfirst into the great unknown?
Time seemed to slow as her ears filled with the hollow, echoing sound of ocean waves. And then she did the only thing she could do. She turned right
Three months earlier
His intercom buzzed.
"Mr. McCormack, Juliet Zaccaro is here to see you."
Reid's fingers paused over the keyboard in mid-stroke. He tried to tell himself that the clenching of his gut and the flush of heat that washed over him were nothing more than surprise. Her visit was unscheduled and completely unexpected after all.
Pressing the return button on his multiline phone, he cleared his throat and said, "Thank you, Paula. Send her in."
Saving the document he'd been working on, he shuffled some papers off to the side of his desk, then turned his attention to the door as soon as the knob turned and it began to open.
As it had from the first time he'd met her, the sight of Juliet Zaccaro slammed him dead center. Like a race car hitting the wall at a hundred and sixty miles per hour.
She was classically, amazingly beautiful. Flawless skin covered every inch of her strong but smooth features. Her eyes were robin's-egg blue, surrounded by long, dark lashes. And her honey-blond hair, which he suspected would fall well past her shoulders, was always swept up in a neat twist or bun or other type of regal style.
It was enough to make him want to take it down, run his fingers through the silken strands and then strip her of her perfectly tailored, dignified pantsuit, or blouse and skirt, or whatever other prim and proper outfit she might be wearing.
They'd never been anything but professional and courteous with each other, but since the moment they'd met, his fantasies had been ripe with images of having her naked and writhing beneath him. He wanted to crack through her ladylike demeanor to find the not-so-ladylike woman underneath. The one who would wrap her arms and legs around him like a vise, begging him to take her harder, faster, deeper. The one who would rake her nails down his back and scream his name when he sent her hurtling over the edge into bliss.
A wave of heat assailed him, and he prayed she wouldn't notice his intense reaction to her presence as he rose to meet her. Staying behind his deskflimsy protection though it washe waited for her to cross the room before offering his hand. Not the first time they'd shaken hands. Not the first time he'd touched her.
Keep it professional, McCormack.
But as his large fingers engulfed her much smaller ones, as rough, tanned skin surrounded pale and delicate, he wanted to tug her closer, hold on a bit longer, stroke his thumb back and forth along the dip of her palm.
She'd been to his office a handful of times now, and he remembered what she'd been wearing each and every one of them. Today, it was a simple lavender dress with a scoop neckline and narrow belt of the same fabric at her waist. Matching lavender pumps and a few simple pieces of gold jewelry completed the look.
There was an air of Audrey Hepburn or Jackie O to her, something that normally held no appeal to him. Didn't he usually go for flashier women? The kind who knew the score, who were well aware of their sexuality and used it to their advantage. The kind who didn't mind a hot, steamy, short-lived affair.
Juliet Zaccaro, as far as he could tell, did not fall into that category.
Why, then, did he seem so preoccupied with her? He'd agreed to help her the first time she'd walked into his office, despite the fact that it was in direct opposition and a clear conflict of interest to another case he'd already been working on for her sister Lily. And from that point on, he hadn't been able to get her out of his head.
He'd called her with updates when he didn't really have any new information to impart and was supposed to be avoiding contact because of her sister's circumstances and the work he was actually focusing on for Lily. He'd met with her in his officesometimes at her request, other times at hiswhen there was no real need.
Now here she was again, showing up without warning, for no official reason that he was aware of. Juliet's request that he find her missing sister was moot now that Lily had returned from Los Angeles and come clean with her family about the reason she'd disappeared for several weeks to begin with. He was still working on Lily's caseaccusations that an employee from a rival clothing company had stolen her designsbut even though Juliet was part owner in Zaccaro Fashions, the investigation didn't really require direct contact with her.
But that didn't stop him from being oddly glad to see her again. His heart was pumping as though he'd just hopped off the treadmill after an hour-long workout, but he felt the way he used to as a kid when he got exactly the toy he wanted from the bottom of his cereal box, even though there were six different possibilities.
Clearing his throat, he gestured for Juliet to take a seat, then returned to his own. "Ms. Zaccaro. It's nice to see you again, though I wasn't aware we still had any outstanding business."
Although he thought of her as Juliet in his head, he was always careful to address her as Ms. Zaccaro, keeping things as professional as possible between them, as well as giving himself the necessary reminder that she wasor had been, anywaya client and that she was engaged to another man.
She smiled shakily and gave a small sniff. Which was when he noticed the trace of red rimming her eyes and the slight pallor of her skin beneath a light layer of makeup.
His own eyes narrowed. Was she in trouble? Was something going on again that she needed his help with? Part of him wanted to groanthe last thing he needed was a legitimate reason to spend more time with herwhile another part was almost hoping for the worst.
Licking her glossed lips, she said, "I just wanted to drop by and give you a check for the work you did on my case."
He had the decency to flush at that. He hadn't done any work for her. If anything, he'd fed her bad information and given her the runaround for almost a month. Only because he'd been trying to protect the confidentiality of the case he'd already been working on for her sister, but still. He didn't deserve payment for that.
"You don't owe me anything," he told her roughly. In fact, he owed her the retainer she'd left with him back, and made a mental note to see that it was returned.
"Of course I do." Her words were resolute, but her tone was still shaky. "I hired you to do a job and you did it. To the best of your ability, at any rate," she added with a gentle half smile.
"I lied to you and wasted your time," he saidmore sharply than he'd intended out of disgust with himself.
"Only because you were already working for Lily, trying to help her save our company. If it hadn't been for you 'pretending' to look for her, I probably would have taken off and tried to find her myself. And we both know I had no idea which direction she'd even gone, so I would have been running in circles, likely getting into more trouble than I imagined she was in. What you did was noble, and pretty much your only option, given the circumstances."
He made an impolite, noncommittal noise, his mouth turning down at the sides. That wasn't his opinion of the situation at all, and having her describe it in such a positive, almost heroic light only made him feel like that much more of a heel.
Ignoring him, Juliet went on. "And you're still helping us, which I think shows you how much confidence we have in your ability. But those abilities don't come cheap, and I knew that when I approached you."
Unsnapping the small clutch purse on her lap, she pulled out a check and leaned forward to slide it across the desk toward him.
Because he suspected no amount of argument would sway her, and tearing it up in front of her would be a ruder gesture than even he was comfortable expressing in mixed company, he reached for the check with no intention of ever cashing the damn thing.
That was when he noticed the bruises. Just a few small, light discolorations dotting the inside of her forearm.
Anyone else would probably have dismissed them entirely. People bumped into things all the time, ended up with bruises of an unknown origin.
But he'd seen too much in his thirty-nine years, was unfortunately all too familiar with the signs of someone putting his hands on another person. Domestic abuse, a down-and-dirty street fight, or simply self-defense practice, there was a difference between I bumped into the armoire and somebody grabbed me by the arm with enough force to leave five perfectly formed fingertip-shaped marks on my skin.
His jaw clenched with fury at the thought of anyoneanyonegrabbing her in anger. He also hated the thought of anyone other than himself grabbing her in passion, but that was not how she'd gotten those bruises. Not there. Not in that pattern.
His first instinct was to reach out and grab her arm for a closer look. Which was about the worst idea ever. The last thing a person who was already sporting bruises from an aggressor needed was to have some other jerk manhandle her soon after.
So he settled for biting down on his rear molars so tightly they threatened to grind into dust and taking the check she was still holding out to him. Slowly, carefully, while contemplating his next best move.
"Thank you," he murmured, setting the check aside before bringing his hands back to clasp them in front of him. If he kept them together and didn't let go, there was less of a chance he'd end up reaching for her after all.
"Let me ask you something, Ms. Zaccaro," he said, amazed at how calm and composed he sounded when he felt anything but.
"Of course. And call me Juliet, please."
He didn't, but went ahead with what he wanted to know most. "Who put his hands on you?"
He was good at reading faces, body language, all those nearly imperceptible ticks and fidgets that people didn't realize they were making, but that were remarkably telling. Juliet's reaction flashed like a neon sign.
She froze, her eyes widening a fraction as she held her breath. An action he identified by the lack of rise and fall to her chest.